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Top 5 reasons for using an ND filter

Learn the top 5 reasons for using an ND(Neutral Density) filter in automotive photography, and see how they are stack-able.

BMW 335i

You’ll often hear me say that, aside from a polarizer, I never use special filters on my lens. The reason is because a lens makes an effect permanent. I can often add that same effect in post production with the option to remove it.

But, there are times when they are useful, and I’m going to review an ND (Neutral Density) filter today. You’ll almost always use this with a tripod.

1- More even exposure

Let’s use a recent personal shoot of my own BMW 335i, taken during sunset. Since we’re shooting directly into the sun, we’re going to get an over-exposed sky and a car (and background) that’s heavy in shadow. Using an ND filter means that less light is allowed into the lens. In this case, it helps to bring out the details of shadow in the car while leaving the details in the sky. I still suggest taking a few exposures, but now you’re holding the shutter open for 1.6 seconds, as oppose to 3 tenths of a second.

BMW 335i
This exposure was taken for 1.6 seconds. The sky is overexposed a bit, but there is now plenty of detail in the shadow of the car. We can always take the filter off for the sky exposure.
BMW 335i sunset
This was shot without an ND filter for just the sky.Notice how dark the car is, but how the sky is exposed just right.

2- Cool effects

Speaking of sky, have you ever seen a shot that has clouds that look like they are zooming by? It’s done with an ND filter, which allows the movement of the clouds to happen without the rest of the sky being over exposed. I’ve used it for many shots, like Sue’s M2 at Pocono.

Set up a tripod for this, and it works best at sunrise / sunset, but you can get the effect in broad daylight with a strong enough filter. You can also use this to smooth over the water on an ocean, or a waterfall.

Speedhunters F87 BMW M2
The movement of clouds is from holding the exposure open long enough with an ND filter.

3- Stackable

The higher the number on your ND filter, the less light it allows through. But you can always stack them for just the right amount of light. You can also stack with a polarizer, which is what you see below. They will all turn together, and the shot will still be polarized accordingly – bests of both worlds.

ND filters
ND filters stacked on my Nikon Z7.

4- Works day and night

Least you think that this is just for daytime – I’ve used ND filters when light painting as well. They can lower the effect headlights have on a shot, and can also dampen ambient light.

5- Multiple options

ND filters are measures in “stops”, and their are many options (I recommend Tiffen or B + W filters). As mentioned above, you can use one, or many. Just be aware that the more you stack, the more vignette effect you may get.

BMW 335i sunset.
Using an ND filter can result in a nice, soft sky.

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